By MSNBC contributor
updated 1/12/2004 4:19:36 PM ET 2004-01-12T21:19:36

The biggest political battles of 2004 might be fought in the most unlikely of places — at the dinner table. And when the politicians start deciding your menu, don’t just pass the salt: Watch out for assault on your liberties.

As our obsession swings from Carrie Nation to Calorie Nation, consider:

  • Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is suggesting taxing unhealthy behaviors such as drinking and eating junk food. Why? To solve the city’s budget woes, according to  Bay City News Service. Brown wants a tax on people who eat salty and sugary foods as well as "a tippler tax on those who drink at the bar."
  • Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants to ban junk food and soda from public school vending machines. According to the Chicago Tribune, Blagojevich said the ban would mean "we are going to stop sending you kids mixed messages, by teaching you about nutrition in our schools, and then giving you the chance to buy things like soda and candy and all kinds of junk food, only a few feet away. This has got to stop."
  • Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman wants to require junk food advertisements to include nutritional information that warns parents. Lieberman: "I like doughnuts. I like sweets. I like candy. I'm not saying if you eat a jelly doughnut or have a high-sugar bottle of soda, you're going to get sick, but if you have too many, it's going to affect your health."
  • Lieberman also wants to require restaurant chains to include nutritional information on menus and mini-boards. There is a bill pending in Congress to do that, and several states have also considered and passed such legislation. The Massachusetts General Court debated this bill: "The children’s menu in any restaurant which offers such menu shall contain, at least, one item whose fat content does not exceed 22 grams and such items shall be clearly labeled as such."

Few things are as personal as what we eat. Yet that’s not stopping politicians who want to turn the Happy Meal into the Never Happy Meal. Will future elections become a choice over which politician food cop should be the one to decide what we put in our mouths?

The appetite to regulate what we eat has been building for a long time, even before similarly driven politicians declared war on our freedom to drive Sport Utility Vehicles. A few years back, U.S. News & World Report listed the "Twinkie tax" among the "16 smart ideas to fix the world." Here’s what they said: "How to slim down the world's fattest society. Tax the unhealthy junk food that contributes to obesity." Even earlier, in 1994, R.J. Reynolds ran a full-page newspaper ad opposing a tobacco tax that said "Today it's cigarettes. Tomorrow — will alcohol be next? Will caffeine be next? Will high-fat foods be next?"

The answer is yes, prompting proponents of personal responsibility to introduce bills in Congress and in statehouses with names like "The Commonsense Consumption Act" and "The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Bill." And that’s how the great political food fight of 2004 will be framed. It’s red meat for libertarians and do-gooders alike.

As bad as it’s getting here, at least we’re not in Britain. According to the Sunday Times of London, British regional health director John Ashton said: "Individuals cannot protect themselves from bioterrorism, epidemics of Sars, the concerted efforts of the junk food industry, drug dealers and promoters of tobacco and alcohol. … The State is the guardian of the weak and underprivileged. It should intervene to encourage people to eat healthily and take exercise."

'Live Free or Diet'
That’s quite a role for a state. Makes you want to urge New Hampshire to change its motto from "Live Free or Die" to "Live Free or Diet."

The solution need not lie in regressive taxes that hit people most who can’t afford organic greens and free-range chickens. And we don’t have to instinctively beef up government bureaucracy. We don’t need a carbohydrate czar. Nor should we stalk Girl Scout cookie sellers or consider nutritional enterprise zones dishing out tax credits for squeezing fresh orange juice.

There are less intrusive approaches to making us healthier. Here’s a private sector solution: A Seattle restaurant, the 5 Spot, is waging a campaign to stop obesity lawsuits against restaurants by having customers sign a waiver before dining on a sinfully rich high-calorie dessert called The Bulge. Now that’s personal responsibility.

And it’s a great way to respond to the food cops — let ’em eat cake!

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

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